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"Meticulously extrapolated...Alternate world tales and espionage thrillers both demand an abundance of intricate detail to be convincing and Modesitt doesn't stint for either thread of his narrative."—The Washington Post Book World on Of Tangible Ghosts
"A mystery with an other-wordly difference. Modesitt deftly works out what the political and social consequences might have been had ghosts actually existed."—Jack McDevitt on Of Tangible Ghosts
The late-October New Bruges drizzle—more liquid ice than rain on that Friday night—clicked off the Stanley’s thermal finish all the way down from the house into Vanderbraak Centre. Beside me, Llysette sat, drawn into herself, as she always was before she performed.
When you’re a professor and retired spy married to a former diva of old France who’s been the toast of a Europe now crumbled under Ferdinand’s boots, you always hope for peace and quiet. Especially when you’ve finally turned the disaster of two ghosts in your life into mere inconvenience. And sometimes you get it, but this time even the ice was only the calm before a bigger storm.
“The ice rains…at times, Johan, would that we lived where I did not need two coats and wool garments.”
“I know.” I’d learned early to say nothing controversial before she sang. “I was thinking that over midterms we might take a vacation in Saint-Martine. There’s a weekly dirigible from Asten.”
“I will not endure that long a time.” Llysette shivered. “And tonight, they will applaud like cows. For what do I sing?”
“Because you’re a singer. Singers sing. You sing magnificently—”
“Once I did. Now…I do not know.”
“You’ll be magnificent. I know it.” I eased the steamer to a stop right opposite the side door to the old Physical Training building, set the brake, and scurried around with the black umbrella to escort Llysette up and inside. I kissed her on the cheek, again. “You’ll be fine.”
“Fine is for gold, Johan.”
“You’ll sing magnificently.”
“We shall see.” She headed up the half-flight of steps to the practice room where her accompanist, Johanna, waited. She’d already warmed up at the house on the Haaren console grand piano. I’d purchased that for her with part of my “bonus” for resolving the governmental ghost crisis. Given what I’d put Llysette through, she deserved the piano and more. Given what Archduke Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and my own beloved country of Columbia had put her through, even a concert Steinbach wouldn’t have been the first installment on true repayment to her, but I was trying.
I went back to move the Stanley into a more legitimate spot in the car park, getting even wetter in the process because it was about four times as far from where I parked to the front of the Music and Theatre building.
“Good evening, Doktor Eschbach.” One of Llysette’s students was handing out programs, but I didn’t recall her name—Emelia van-something or other. Then, most of the students at Vanderbraak State University were from New Bruges. Most had a predominantly Dutch heritage—and that Dutch reserve that made Llysette’s teaching an exercise as much in trying to bring emotion to singing as to develop the basics of music.
To my surprise, the foyer was relatively crowded, and I turned toward the theatre itself, but didn’t get that far.
“Doktor Eschbach! Doktor Eschbach…” Katrinka Er Recchus had the kind of voice that penetrated, but I supposed that kind of penetration was sometimes useful for the dean of the university. Her bright and overly broad smile was dwarfed by the expanse of white lace collar that topped her too ample figure. Although the auburn hair was faultless, I suspected the original shade had been mousy brown, but there was nothing mousy about her—ratlike, perhaps, but not mousy.
“Dean Er Recchus.” I bowed to her and then to Alois, her even more rotund husband, a retired major in the New Bruges guard, as was obvious from the squared-off nature of his white goatee, the guard pin in his lapel, and the dark gray cravat and suit. He returned the bow without speaking.
“I had heard that your presentation on environmental politics and policies was masterful,” the dean continued. “Doktor Doniger was most complimentary.”
“I’m glad David was pleased.” Doktor David Doniger, my chairman and head of the newly reformed Department of Political and Natural Resource Sciences, was usually a pain in the posterior.
“Johan.” Her voice lowered, but not the overpowering quantity of that floral fragrance that some vain and aging women immerse themselves in under the delusion that olfactory stupefaction will result in visual illusion. “The vanEmsdens were so pleased that you are the first professor to occupy their endowed chair. Peter was particularly supportive of your past achievements and your dedication to Columbia. He served in the Singapore incident, in the Republic Air Corps, as you did. I am so glad that all such unpleasantnesses are behind us now.” The bright smile indicated that any such unpleasantness had best remain behind us all.
The Singapore mess, when Chung Kuo had devastated the city, had been well before my time, and Peter vanEmsden and I had merely passed pleasantries at the ceremony where I’d been installed as the first vonBehn Professor of Applied Politics and Ecology. I doubted most knew the ironies involved with my selection to establish the formal legacy of Elysia vanEmsden’s father’s forebear, and I wasn’t about to explain. After all, how could I—a spy carrying on the legacy of another spy?
“I am delighted that they were pleased.”
Alois merely nodded, as he did frequently when with the dean.
When I finally entered the theatre that had been the sole lecture hall of the old Physical Training center, I checked the program. At least Llysette no longer had to resort to under-the-table handouts from the Austro-Hungarian Cultural Foundation to make ends meet. Tucked in among the recital pieces, besides An die Nacht and Barber’s Monastic Songs, was Anne Boleyn’s aria from Heinrich Verruckt. Llysette had wanted to do that aria at her recital the fall before but had done the Mozart Anti-Mass instead. She’d needed the stipend from the Cultural Foundation. The recital had been the night Miranda Miller, the piano professor, had been murdered, and that had started Llysette’s and my adventures with several different covert operations, including those of my former employer, the Sedition Prevention and Security Service, more widely and less popularly known as the Spazi.
I shivered a touch. The last thing Llysette and I needed was anything more along those lines.
The house was almost full, with nearly all of the 450 seats filled nearly a half hour before Llysette was due to sing. I paused for a moment before I sat down, about halfway back, on the aisle, still surveying the audience.
In about the tenth row, in the middle, sat a bearded man in dark clothes, not the dark clothes of the Dutch, or even of a conservative southerner, but different, somehow, almost out of the last century. Not too far from the stranger sat Dierk Geoffries, Llysette’s chair. On the far side I even saw Marie Rijn, who cleaned the house for us, along with an older man I guessed had to be her husband.
After I seated myself on one of the all too inflexible Dutch colonial hardwood seats, I glanced back at the bearded man. The seats on either side of him had remained empty, even as the house filled.
The lights dimmed.
Llysette stepped onstage, dark hair upswept, almost imperial in the shimmering green gown, and I forgot about the bearded man.
Johanna’s fingers caressed the keys of the concert Steinbach, and the sound shimmered into the evening. Then Llysette began, a selection from Perkins, not one from a Vondel opera.
Llysette sang beautifully. She always had, but now there was something else…even more of a spark or a lambent flame.
She had the entire audience, even the stolid Dutch burghers, standing and yelling after she finished the encore—something from an opera I’d never heard: Susannah. And she smiled back at them. The other thing I’d never heard in Vanderbraak Centre was so much applause from the normally restrained Dutch.
Llysette’s department chair—that was Dierk Geoffries—caught me in the aisle. “I didn’t think she could get better, she was so good.…” He shook his mane of gray-blond hair. “I’ve heard some of the best—Delligatti, Riciarelli, Rysanek. Tonight she was better than any of them.”
I’d never heard better, but I was no expert. From the hypercritical Dierk, that was high praise. “Best you tell her. If I did, she’d just dismiss it as the pride of a smitten spouse.”
“I will.” Dierk laughed, and I let him head down the aisle first, listening as I did.
“…better than korfball any day.…”
“…good…but…don’t know about that,” murmured the tall blond youth, who probably was on the university korfball team—which had lost badly to Rensselaer the night before.
The bearded man in the old-fashioned suit, except it seemed new, had a broad smile on his face as he bowed to Llysette backstage and murmured something before stepping away and vanishing.
I followed Dierk and a square-faced Hans Waetjen backstage. Waetjen was the chief of the Watch for Vanderbraak Centre, and he’d avoided speaking to me ever since my actions had led to three of his officers being turned into zombies because one had been suborned by an Austrian covert agent. Dierk stepped aside, and the Watch chief bowed to Llysette. “You were magnificent.” Then he turned to me. “Almost magnificent enough to forgive you for marrying Doktor Eschbach.”
Waetjen nodded and was gone. At least, a year after the unfortunate incident, he was speaking to me, and he hadn’t protested, so far as I knew, when the Citizenship Bureau, after years of dithering, had finally granted Llysette her citizen’s status. And I’d never known he liked singing.
Dierk shook his head again. “Unbelievable. No wonder you were the toast of the Academie Royale. I was truly blessed tonight.” After another incredulous headshake, he, too, slipped away.
“You were wonderful.” I hugged her, and I even had remembered chocolates and flowers—but they were waiting for her at home. “You…you’ve never been better.”
Llysette smiled…shyly, for a moment. “Better we were, and better yet we will be.…”
“You, not we.”
“We,” she corrected me. “And it is good, Johan. Sad…but good.”
I swallowed and hugged her, knowing my own cheeks were suddenly damp.
With others still arriving to see Llysette, I stepped back to her shoulder, nodding at Johanna and murmuring, “You played well.”
“She sang…she sang, Johan.” The accompanist shook her head slowly. “Singing like that you seldom hear. Seldom? I’ve never heard it before.”
“I can see that I have missed too much.” Katrinka Er Recchus, Alois stolidly behind her, smiled her broad and false smile. “You were delightful, dear, absolutely delightful.” Her eyes went to me. “;You have been too modest about her. Far too modest, Johan.” As if it were my fault that the former chair of the Music and Theatre Department hadn’t bothered to come to Llysette’s recitals before?
I forced a smile. “She has always been magnificent.”
“Oh, I can tell now…but how was I to know?”
I could have asked myself the same. Once I’d thought about enhancing her singing with my ghost-projection equipment, to create supporting “angels,” but after what I’d heard, that would have been too great a sin…far too great. Then, maybe, any use of the equipment to influence people would have been, and I just hadn’t understood then.
“Enchanting,” offered Alois, stolidly easing the dean aside, for once. “Wonderfully enchanting.” Alois bowed and escorted the dean back toward the foyer.
“Professor duBoise,” asked a red-haired student, tears streaming down her face, “how can I ever do the Perkins the way you do?”
“Couldn’t we change places? I’ll never be able to sing like you do.”
“You wish to sing, Berthe? Then work you must. I will hear the Perkins on Tuesday.” Llysette softened the words with a smile and a pat on the girl’s shoulder.
“Your coat,” I prompted as the admirers began to thin.
“It is…in the practice room.”
“Do you need a ride?” I asked Johanna as I started to retrieve the heavy coat.
“Pietr is already getting the steamer.” The accompanist smiled briefly at Llysette. “Even he was touched, but he won’t admit it.”
“That, that is quelque chose incredible.”
After ensuring that Llysette was wrapped in the coat, I managed to ease the three boxes of chocolates and several sprays of flowers under my free arm and to escort her to the side door. “You wait here, and I’ll bring the Stanley around.”
“That is fine with me.” She shivered, as she often did after heavy exertion, and wrapped the heavy coat around her.
The Stanley started easily, despite the streaks of ice and cold water, and the rain had turned to tiny frozen pellets. Llysette almost slipped getting into the steamer. Before long, the road and car park would be black ice.
The town square was mostly deserted, except for the lights in the Watch station, and I wondered if Chief Waetjen had stopped by on his way home, that is, if he had one besides the station.
“Who was the bearded fellow?” I asked. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“The…bearded…oh, the man with the ancient cravat?” Llysette shrugged under the heavy wool coat. “Never have I seen him.
He offered his name…James…Jacob…Jensen. He said…we would be hearing from him. Then he was gone.”
“He said my singing, it was as grand as any.”
“It was.” I laughed, but I wondered about Herr Jensen. When unknown admirers promise that you’ll hear from them, you have to wonder in what context.
The River Wijk was dark even under the new lights from the bridge. On the other side, I had to go into four-wheel drive once we started up Deacon’s Lane because the narrow uphill road had a thin layer of ice and slush. I had the feeling we were in for an early and hard winter, unlike the previous year.
I dropped Llysette by the door while I manuevered the steamer into the car barn.
She glanced up the stairs as we stepped into the front foyer. Force of habit, still, I suspected, from the days when Carolynne, the family ghost, had lurked there. That had been before my efforts with ghosting technology had ended up grafting her into both our souls. It hadn’t been planned that way, and it had saved us from worse, but it wasn’t always easy living with feelings and memories you knew weren’t yours. I felt it was even harder for Llysette and, for that reason, didn’t mention Carolynne much.
“Good it is for there to be no ghosts looking down the stairs. I would dread looking up there.”
“I know. I always looked first.” I locked the door and took off my topcoat, then led her back to the sitting room. “You just sit here in front of the stove.” Although I’d loaded the woodstove before we’d left and the sitting room off the terrace was warm, I opened the stove door and added another two lengths of oak. The heat welled out, and Llysette leaned forward to get warm.
“I’ll get your wine…or would you like chocolate?” As I turned, I could see the piano in the rear parlor—I’d never really used that space before, but it had turned out to be the best place for the piano, and the room was warm.
“The wine.…I am warmer, already.” She looked up at me, her green eyes wide. “You are good to me…to us.”
“After…everything…you say that.…” I swallowed. It was still hard. “I love you.”
A smile crinkled her lips. “Dutch you are. For all your words, mon ami, some you find difficult.”
She was right. I did.
“The wine?” Her voice was softer now when she spoke, softer than when we had first met, but neither of us needed to discuss that.
I ducked downstairs—there was a relatively new case of Bajan red, a mountain Sebastopol. Probably not so good as a really good French wine, but better than anything else, and the French hadn’t been producing good wines for the last fifteen years or so, not since Ferdinand had reduced the French population by more than 30 percent in his infamous March.
Once I’d opened the bottle, I brought her a glass, with my chocolates. They were the fourth box, but how would I have known?
“Here is the wine…and my small offering.” I didn’t tell her about the roses up in the bedroom. She’d see those later.
“Good.” She smiled, and her eyes smiled with her mouth. “French it is not—”
“But almost as good,” I finished. Llysette would never admit that Columbian wine would match that of her vanquished homeland, but we could laugh about it—about the wine, not about her terrors, nor the torture under Ferdinand, nor the hard years after.
I sat down beside her on the new sofa—we’d redecorated a great deal in the six months since we’d been married—with my own glass of Sebastopol.
Outside, the ice pellets turned into snow, and the wind gusted. I eased back to enjoy warmth of the stove, of the Sebastopol, of the coming weekend, and mostly of Llysette.
Copyright © 1998 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.